Colorado has joined 30 other states in suspending installation of Trinity Industries’ ET-Plus guardrail systems over concerns that they malfunction in car crashes, piercing the front of vehicles and slicing through their interiors.

On Oct. 20, a federal jury found Trinity had defrauded the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The company was ordered to pay the federal agency $525 million for violating the False Claims Act – a sum that is to be split with the whistleblower who initiated the claim, according to the New York Times.

According to an article in the Dallas News, the jury unanimously decided in a whistleblower case that Trinity made changes to the federally approved ET-Plus design but failed to inform the FHWA.

Design Change Causes End Cap to ‘Lock Up’

In 2005, Trinity reduced the size of a piece of metal in the ET-Plus end terminal, a design change that was kept secret from the FHWA and that, according to ABC News, would save the company $50,000 per year.

The end terminal is an energy-absorbing cap designed to slide along the guardrail on impact so that the metal collapses away from a vehicle during a crash. In the lawsuit, whistleblower Josh Harman said that the design change made the guardrails less effective.

Due to the reduced dimensions, the guardrails are suspected of locking up rather than absorbing impact, which can cause them to act like deadly spears. A study by the University of Alabama-Birmingham found that, compared to its ET-2000 predecessor, the ET-Plus is 1.45 times more likely to be cause a severe injury and 3.95 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.

A day after the Texas jury verdict, the FHWA demanded that Trinity perform additional safety testing on the ET-Plus.

CDOT Halts Further Installations But Doesn’t Remove Guardrails

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) told Denver’s 7NEWS that it would prohibit further installation of the guardrails but continue to use the already installed guardrails until Trinity produces test results.

“After further consideration, the Colorado Department of Transportation will place a moratorium on buying/installing the Trinity ET-Plus (pulling it from our approved products list) while the FHWA is conducting its new set of crash tests,” CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford told 7NEWS in an email. “We will reconsider the matter once the testing is complete.”

7NEWS says that it’s unclear how many ET-Plus guardrails are installed on Colorado roads.

In addition to the whistleblower lawsuit, Trinity faces several lawsuits filed by car accident victims who claim that design changes to the ET-Plus are responsible for four deaths and 10 injuries in states that include Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Based on lawsuit filings, the hallmark of an accident involving the redesigned Trinity ET-Plus is a guardrail that pierces the car’s interior and in some cases has severed motorists’ limbs.

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